Iowa Supreme Court Says Ag Nuisance Plaintiffs Were Liable for Litigation Costs

March 29, 2020 | Kitt Tovar

On March 27, 2020, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling finding that two plaintiffs who voluntarily dismissed their agricultural nuisance claims a second time were liable to the defendants for costs and expenses.

Background

This is another case in the Honomichl litigation, an agricultural nuisance case that came before the Iowa Supreme Court in 2018. A group of seventy property owners filed a lawsuit against two Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) sites alleging negligence and nuisance. All plaintiffs had to dismiss their original suit without prejudice because they failed to comply with the farm mediation requirement. Iowa Code § 657.10. All but one of the original plaintiffs refiled at a later time. Two of these plaintiffs, the subjects of the present case, voluntary dismissed their cases a second time, long after the defendants had invested significant money defending against their claims.

The first of the two plaintiffs worked as an auto mechanic out of his home which is 2.36 miles and 3.69 miles from the two CAFOs. At his deposition in July 2015, this plaintiff claimed there were odor issues six to twelve times in 2015 and eight to sixteen times in 2014. This plaintiff also kept an odor calendar where he noted only two times where an odor forced him to go into his house. He did not investigate where the odor was coming from.

The second plaintiff lives more than five miles from each site, but babysits her grandchildren that live much closer to the CAFOs. The farmhouse where she babysits is owned by her daughter and son-in-law. The land is owned by her husband. Her husband, daughter, and son-in-law are not plaintiffs in this litigation. This plaintiff claimed she could smell odor almost daily when she was at her daughter and son-in-law’s house. She claimed the odor interfered with activities, such as her grandchildren playing outside, and she noticed an abundance of green flies which she believed were caused by the CAFOs.

On June 7, 2016, the first plaintiff dismissed his claims voluntarily for the second time. The larger action then made its way through the court system, where the Iowa Supreme Court on June 22, 2018, ruled on the constitutionality of Iowa’s Right to Farm law, which grants immunity from nuisance lawsuits if the farm “manage[s] their operations according to state and federal requirements from the costs of defending nuisance suits.” Iowa Code § 657.11. The Court returned the case to the district court for more fact finding and, in September of 2018, the second plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her complaint for the second time. After each dismissal, the defendants filed a motion for costs, expenses, and attorney fees under Iowa Code section 657.11(5) and Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.413(1).

Iowa Code section 657.11(5) shifts litigation costs to those who unreasonably bring nuisance lawsuits against animal feeding operations. It states:

If a court determines that a claim is frivolous, a person who brings the claim as part of a losing cause of action against a person who may raise a defense under this section shall be liable to the person against whom the action was brought for all costs and expenses incurred in the defense of the action.

The lower court found the two plaintiffs’ pleadings were not sanctionable under Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.413(1), Iowa's equivalent of Federal Rule 11, which sanctions attorneys for bringing frivolous claims. The court ruled, however, that the plaintiffs had “a losing cause of action” under Iowa Code section 657.11(5), that their claims were frivolous, and that they were liable to the defendants for costs and expenses. The lower court declined to award attorney fees. The plaintiffs appealed.

What is a “Losing Cause of Action”?

On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed, pointing out that unless the court orders otherwise, a second voluntary dismissal is considered an adjudication against that dismissing party on the merits. Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.943. The Court ruled that a party who suffers an adverse adjudication on the merits of a case is a losing party with a losing cause of action. Additionally, if a case is resolved through a voluntary dismissal, Iowa courts will still recognize the prevailing party. The Court reasoned that the purpose of Iowa Code section 657 is “to protect animal agricultural producers who manage their operations according to state and federal requirements from the costs of defending nuisance suits.” Allowing a plaintiff to avoid expenses for a frivolous claim by voluntarily dismissing her claim would prevent this goal.

Were these Claims Frivolous?

A nuisance is “[w]hatever is injurious to health, indecent, or unreasonably offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as essentially to interfere unreasonably with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.” Iowa Code § 657.1(1). A plaintiff bringing a nuisance allegation must have an interest in the affected property such as the right to possess or the right to use and enjoyment the property.

The first plaintiff who worked as an auto mechanic had little evidence of any harm. He could only identify two times where the odor affected his actual use of the property. Additionally, he had no evidence the odors even came from these specific operations.

The second plaintiff did describe hardships and unreasonable interference due to the odors while at her daughter’s house. However, even though she spent a large amount of time babysitting for her grandchildren, she did not have a legal connection to the property, nor did she live there. The house was owned by her daughter and son-in-law and the land was owned by the plaintiff’s husband. She did have some ownership in several of the utility buildings but there was no evidence that the CAFOs affected the use or operation of those buildings.  

For these reasons, the Court affirmed the ruling finding that the claims were frivolous. The Court did point out that the the high amount of damages claimed by the two plaintiffs did NOT make the claims frivolous, even if they were exaggerated. Additionally, the second plaintiff’s work as an activist to stop CAFO operations was also not a factor in determining whether her claim was frivolous. The Court concluded that even though awarding costs and expenses may be a deterrent for other potential plaintiffs, it is permissible as long as the motions are grounded in fact.